A Secret History of the IRA
by Ed Moloney
(In Paperback from Amazon)
This history lesson about Ireland's struggle for independence diffuses the drama and the experience under the weight of detail and length. Screenwriter Paul Laverty ("Sweet Sixteen") seems to have adapted a textbook for Ken Loach ("Sweet Sixteen") to direct.
England, in the last century, has shed much of its empire, but Ireland is a whole other story. It's proximity and resources have been too much for the English ruling class to give it up. When Irishmen united as a republic and rose up to assert their independence after the French Revolution, the IRA was born and the armed struggles began.
The film starts with an incident in a small farm community. The year is 1920. More and more workers have been coalescing into volunteer guerilla forces. A British unit arrives on the doorstep of one farmhouse to inflict terror and send a message to the young men who are their assumed enemies and to make us understand the brutality of the British as occupiers.
Following the raid, heinous in its administration, Damien, a doctoral student, resists joining his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney), friend Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald), and others as a volunteer. He thinks his duty is to continue his studies. But, when he witnesses another British army outrage on a train station, he cancels his trip to university and becomes a fully engaged volunteer.
His intelligence and reasoning make him a person the rest of his unit listens to. His doctoral training further increases his stature and value, but as a volunteer among many, he is not the designated leader -- merely a vital guerilla soldier among many. He remains as central a focus in the movie as the screenplay and Murphy's charismatic presence allow, but the story retains its broad view of the insurrection and its strategies without singling out one hero.
After much bloodshed on both sides, a treaty is carved out in London. The debate about it among the previously unified volunteers is long and well argued. But now, the IRA splits between those who won't accept the treaty's compromises and those who do. Damien parts from his brother on this point, saying, "The Treaty does not express the will of the people, but the fear of the people."
The tragedy that splits brother and friend now ensures a continuation of the struggle and a sad end to this episode of the history.
After his effete turn as a crossdresser in "Breakfast on Pluto" and psychopathic killer in "Red Eye," Murphy is interesting to watch in a submerged, natural role that comes closer to the person he is. Anyone who has been put off by his mainstream incarnations should see this more tempered performance in which he's a supporting player.
The rest of an excellent Irish and Scottish cast is generally unknown to American filmgoers and its members are not likely to make a name for themselves here as a result of service in this ensemble assignment. But, at least, non-Irish Americans are more likely to accept it on its motion picture merits than as an overriding political piece.
Not subtitled, the Gaelic and heavily accented English pose a challenge in understanding to the American ear though it's often not necessary to understand every word.
~~ Jules Brenner
(region 3 encoding)